The Klondike Gold Rush is above all a story about people — so here is a story about a world famous journalist, you have probably never heard of, his bride, and a snapshot. Oh yes, there’s also tons of blasting powder, a war in Cuba, sunny skies in Hawaii, and an apparent love triangle!
In the summer of 1992, I was called down to the visitor center desk at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park headquarters on Second and Broadway, here in Skagway, to talk to Dr. John Walker. After a brief introduction, Dr. Walker informed me that his father, Robert G. Walker, had taken a journey north to the Klondike Gold Fields in the fall of 1897. He explained that he had recently discovered a set of his father’s negatives in an old family trunk and being a bit of a photographer himself, had printed up photographs from the negatives. He wanted to donate these copies to us and our sister park in Seattle. After looking at the images I gratefully accepted them. For the first time, the park was acquiring ordinary snapshots of gold rush era people.
The park has a collection of some 12,000 images of this area beginning in 1894 and running to the present day. The collection is growing mostly through kind donations from people like Dr. Walker. Most of our Klondike Gold Rush images, however, were taken by professional photographers and the people in them tend to be rather stiff and very serious looking. This was because having pictures taken by professionals was something of an event in those days and the film and camera speeds were relatively slow by today’s standards. If you were to be in the picture you couldn’t move for several seconds or you would become blurry or even disappear from the image if you moved too fast. The pictures Dr. Walker’s father had taken were just the opposite. They were simple snapshots of ordinary people doing ordinary things, the kinds of photos you might take with your camera or smart phone today. These images were certainly not as sharp as in professional photographs, downright grainy in fact, but here the people were generally quite relaxed and in two cases, actually smiling – the first time I’d ever seen that. The pictures Dr. Walker donated that day were of various places along the trail from Skagway to the Klondike Gold Fields but the two pictures that caught my eye were taken right here in Skagway.
Both pictures showed a woman named Frances Scovel and several gentlemen standing on either side of her behind a large canvas sign that read “The World, Sylvester Scovel Correspondent.” One of the individuals in one of the pictures is probably Sylvester himself, although I am not certain of that. A dog is jumping in front of the sign and Frances Scovel has a big smile, while the gentlemen have mostly just hints of smiles in both pictures. Perhaps one of the reasons behind the smiles is the Pack Train tent saloon just behind them, along muddy Broadway, in Skagway, in August 1897. I was quite impressed with the picture. “There’s a story here,” I thought.
In 2005, I was contacted by Dr. Joseph Campbell, Associate Professor of Communications at the American University in Washington D.C., who was working on a book about the year 1897 in journalism. The Klondike Gold Rush was one of the major news events of that year, and he wondered what we had on Klondike journalists and in particular Sylvester Scovel. I told him about the picture of Frances Scovel, and he told me Sylvester’s story.
Sylvester Henry (“Harry” to his friends) Scovel was a world famous journalist who covered most of the important news stories of the day. His paper, the New York World, decided to send him up to Dawson to write human interest stories about the Klondike Stampeders after an exciting time in Cuba where he was arrested twice and sentenced to death by Spanish authorities for aiding the revolutionary cause in his reporting. He and his bride, Frances, decided to make this Alaskan adventure something of a honeymoon trip. In Seattle, Sylvester purchased an 1800 pound outfit for the two of them and then they headed north on the palatial steamer Queen. The Queen was making its second trip to Skagway since the Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlines of July 17, 1897 screamed “GOLD, GOLD, GOLD, GOLD!” The Seattle newspapers fell all over themselves in their admiration of Scovel, calling him “wonderfully energetic” and “one of the most brilliant newspapermen in New York.” On August 11, 1897, in a pouring downfall, the Scovels landed in Skagway, a brand new tent town with lots of little wooden stakes marking out the new town lots. Remember this was just a couple of weeks after the town’s founding. There was still an ongoing rush to stake land and there were plenty of claim jumpers. Frances wrote in her diary that those little wooden stakes reminded her of crosses in a graveyard. Skagway seemed to be at the end of the earth. But she soon found friends she had known in the states and was surprised to find polished gentlemen under two weeks’ worth of beards, Mackinaw clothes, great big rough shoes, and dirt, precisely what Dr. Walker’s father’s snapshot demonstrates.
Honeymooning in a tent in a rainforest isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it seemed just what Scovel needed. He hung the giant New York World banner between two spruce trees and set up a tent headquarters at Skagway which quickly became “the center of things by day” and the “rendezvous of light” at night. Around the nightly campfire Sylvester would strum a guitar, sing love songs, and regale the audience with tales of his life in Cuba, while Mrs. Scovel graciously kept up her end of the camp social life. One of the miners described Scovel as “a magnetic cat,” and all sorts of personalities were drawn to the World camp, from Northwest Mounted Police to low-life shell game operators like Soapy Smith. Scovel was the “big noise” on the Skagway Trail, and everyone wanted to be around him.
In the fall of 1897, traffic on the White Pass Trail, the trail going north from Skagway, had ground to a halt because of the poorly constructed trail, the wettest fall in memory, and just too many people and horses for the trail to bear. Later it would be called the Dead Horse Trail, but at the time, nothing was moving. Sylvester soon realized the problem. At one of the nightly miners’ meetings, he told the crowd that if they gave him $1500 he would go down to Juneau and buy enough blasting powder and other tools to blast open the White Pass Trail. The money was quickly raised. Scovel went down to Juneau and bought a ton or more of blasting powder from the Treadwell Mine Company’s massive magazines and enough rock drilling tools to do the job. Three days later he came back with the blasting powder and the tools, making some improvements on the worst section of the trail. But three miles of a 45 mile trail was only a small start on the work needed. The blasting powder ran out, the rain continued to fall, the trail continued to worsen, the horses continued to die, and the men continued to be frustrated.
For Scovel, however, it worked out – it made for great copy in the newspaper and he got himself, his wife, and his outfit over the White Pass Trail to Lake Bennett, although it took them seven days instead of the usual three. The 1890s was a time of active journalism, when some journalists and their papers did things instead of just reporting on them, and their activities became part of the news. It was also a time of “yellow” journalism. Sylvester Scovel was a man of his times. The “New York World” also got naming rights for the improved section of trail, whatever that was worth.
At Bennett, Sylvester heard that the people of Dawson were so starved for news they would gladly pay lots of money for months old newspapers. So he conceived of a scheme to buy copies of the New York World for pennies in Seattle and to lug the papers to Dawson, where he could then sell them for huge profits. He told his wife he was going down to the nearest telegraph office, which was in Seattle in those days, to wire the New York office of his paper with his scheme and get some financial backing. He said he would be back in seven days.
As the days turned into weeks with no word from Sylvester, Frances was getting desperate. During this time it rained and snowed incessantly and she had nothing to read, nothing to do, and no one to talk to but a lot of very busy men building boats for their trips down the Yukon River to the gold fields. She got into such a state that her brain refused to work and after a while she could hardly sleep. Finally an itinerant reporter by the name of William “Billy” Saportas arrived to rescue her.
Sylvester had been recalled to New York by his paper and was to be sent to Cuba as the talking war with Spain began to heat up. Saportas, at the time a reporter for the “Skagway News,” was apparently friends with Scovel. In Seattle, Sylvester had sent a desperate plea to Saportas via the Captain of the steamer Rosalie. He wanted Saprtas to rescue his wife at Bennett, sell their outfit, and get Frances on the next ship bound for Seattle. Saportas, in Skagway at the time, made the 45-mile journey to Bennett over the White Pass Trail, sold Scovel’s outfit, and then escorted Frances back to Skagway on foot.
After an agonizing trip back, they arrived in Skagway, which was no longer the little tent town Frances had left months earlier. Instead, it was a substantial-looking city of large wood buildings and straight streets, well-built and just as comfortable as could be. She remarked that Skagway had a beautiful bath house, hot and cold baths, stores of every description, and a dance hall. As soon as possible, however, she set sail on the steamer Al-Ki bound for Seattle. Since Mr. Saportas had business in Seattle, he came along too, something that Frances found very agreeable. Later she connected with her husband in New York and headed down to Cuba with him to help him report on the latest developments in the soon to be deadly hot war between Spain and the United States, which lasted from April 25 to August 12, 1898.
No American journalist has ever had a year like Sylvester Scovel had back in 1897: he was involved in all of the year’s most important international stories from Cuba to the Klondike. He flamed out at the end of the Spanish-American War, however; his personality was just too combustible for daily journalism. He was also exhausted, living in tents for much of the year, and overworked. Frances said he was doing the work of several reporters. Sylvester became ill in Cuba and he died in a hospital in Havana, on February 12, 1905 at the age of 35. Frances later married her rescuer, Billy Saportas, in Hawaii on October 9, 1917.
An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station. Information for this article came from Dr. John Walker’s photographs of the Scovels and their friends in Skagway, Alaska, in August 1897, Dr. Joseph W. Campbell’s book, “The Year that Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms,” published in New York city by Routledge in 2006. I used Wikipedia articles on Sylvester H. Scovel and the Spanish-American War, Darien Elizabeth Andreu’s PhD dissertation from Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences entitled “Sylvester H. Scovel, Journalist, and the Spanish-American War” (2003), and M. J. Kirchhoff’s book entitled “The Founding of Skagway: A Klondike Story of Greed, Graft, and Misery in the Summer of 1897,” Juneau, AK: Alaska Cedar Press (2015).